The best of all possible verdicts: guilty

review

"Sorry, yer Grace," said Renee from Brookside (C4), ticked off for writing in the public gallery, "I was just doing me numbers for the lottery." She's lucky it wasn't Judge Ito on the bench; last week, after some court-room squabbling between prosecution and defence, he imposed an on-the-spot fine of $250. "Get your cheque-books out," he snapped, before informing the lawyers (with truly satirical nicety) that they weren't to charge it to their clients. Oh sure. As it takes the lawyers around 20 minutes to earn this sum they didn't look unduly distressed about the penalty, just mildly astonished to discover that money could actually travel away from them in court. It was as if water had started flowing uphill.

Soap operas can't afford American lawyers in their own court cases, for reasons made plain by the coincidence of Brookside's murder trial with the all-important DNA evidence in the OJ trial. The procedure of the real case is ruinously laborious - an abrasive trudge by which the defence lawyers mill the evidence to a fine powder in the hope that the jury won't be able to remember its original shape. This was particularly important last week, when the prosecution pulled out their trump card - the fuzzy bar-codes which pin Simpson to the scene of the crime. Not incontrovertibly, as even the experts admitted, though the one in 170 million odds against the blood being someone else's made the reservation sound academic. Are the defence dismayed? No sirree. They get a chance to show their client that he's getting his money's worth from these million-dollar fog-machines.

One lawyer levered the answer he wanted out of the expert witness after coaxing her up a teetering pile of hypothetical assumptions; another used shampoo-commercial graphics to imply that the original samples had been so degraded that they were unreliable; another, rather more pertinently, put the DNA scientist on the spot. "How do you know that?" he asked simply, after one of her more crushing findings. The long pause that followed was the most dramatic moment in BBC2's weekly round-up of the court proceedings, a glimpse into an epistemological abyss. The defence would like the jury to fall in and never get out.

There are experts in the Brookside trial, too, though not all the obvious ones. There's a toxicologist on hand to testify to the effects of dinitrophenols, the weed-killer with which Beth and Mandy drenched Trevor before planting him (they didn't want unsightly patio-heave, after all). But where's the specialist in violent domestic abuse, who could point out that Mandy's inconsistency of behaviour is part of the pattern of abuse? Come to that, where are the local women's groups, who would surely have been attracted by this doorstep example of the inequities of the justice system? Perhaps the scriptwriters are holding them in reserve for an appeal.

What you got instead was a courtroom drama based on rhetoric - pleading, aggressive, insinuating by turn and quite unlike the dogged document-pounding of the OJ Trial. This is understandable - whatever else it might be, a fictional court case simply can't be a trial to watch, and Brookside's wasn't, supplying some fine moments of aria acting and avoiding the more obviously nudging reaction shots.

The verdict is delivered tonight. The jury, I must say, were admirably stony-faced, giving away no clues about their prejudices but, though there's been a lot of hype about the fact that two alternatives have been filmed, I would bet on a conviction myself. After all, what producer could pass- up the opportunities a guilty verdict would deliver - the heart-breaking separations, Rachel's remorse over her false testimony, prison-cell protests and pavement demonstrations? I'm sure the jurors will do their duty by the script.

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